Prior to the 1990s, thoughts and emotions typically were not topics of discussion. That was a time when children were to be seen and not heard, and employees were not to think, but rather just do as they were told. The very idea of talking about what was on your mind or how you felt often was the last item on anyone’s priority list.
Times certainly have changed over the years, but the idea that we don’t need to share thoughts and emotions still lingers in some organizations. Unfortunately, safe work will be hindered by refusing to establish open dialogue about these subjects. Neglecting to discuss how workers think and feel about the tasks at hand, the difficult people they encounter and the pressure of their schedules – to list just a few topics of concern – will hurt morale, slow production and ultimately affect your bottom line.
If you study the history of industry, you will see how the value of human capital has dramatically shifted during our lifetime. A clear milestone can be found in the 1970s when government, including OSHA, showed up in private industry. The government’s involvement led to the evolution of the industry and sent a clear message: Safe work will be enforced, and the industry will be held accountable. Prior to this time, trends indicate that industry leaders put the almighty dollar before workers’ well-being by allowing hazardous work to occur, which sent an incorrect message that production and schedules were of greater priority than the people doing the work.
Since the 1970s, our industry leaders and government have combined efforts to clearly define and refine written procedures for what safe work actually looks like for most every craft. They’ve taken the necessary time to do the research and create compliance procedures for nearly every hazard that may exist on a job site.
Now, with an increasing industry interest in human capital, the study of human behavior is revealing new realities about the role the brain plays in everyday decisions. Most often we draw from studies on emotional intelligence and, more recently, the field of neuroscience. New medical technology has revealed a wealth of information about the brain and nervous system. Only within the last few years have we confirmed emotional states and how decisions are directly impacted by what a person is thinking and feeling at the time. Safe or unsafe, the human root cause analysis must include what the employee was thinking and feeling.
Because thoughts and emotions are so critical to the decision-making process – they influence someone’s choices more than anything else – safety leaders need to get a better handle on these two subjects and, more importantly, how to positively influence them within others. To be successful as a leader, you can no longer ignore the emotions of those people within your immediate influence. By learning to become empathetic – that is, being able to sense others’ feelings and perspectives and taking an active interest in their concerns – you can then become compassionate, a word that is appearing more and more often in safety training and other safety-related conversations. Compassion isn’t just something you can bestow upon others; you must actively talk about, teach and demonstrate this soft skill.
A guiding principle when dealing with any individual is that you must learn to recognize that humans are feeling creatures first and thinking creatures second. Science validates that the “emotional brain” has the ability to hijack the “thinking brain.” Put simply, when the emotional brain hijacks the thinking brain, creativity, adaptability, learning and innovation are limited and decision-making is hindered. The key lesson objective with training and development is to teach awareness and regulation of self-talk, also referred to as chatter. This keeps the thinking brain in charge. As emotional hijacks occur during your day, mental awareness and regulation skills keep you flexible, creative, learning and adaptable to change, conflict and other pressures.
A Different Kind of PPE
One technique that has proven beneficial in the workplace is the concept of personal protective emotional armor, or PPE-A. While typical PPE can be viewed as similar to the armor men used to wear ages ago, PPE-A is less tangible, but helps to protect safety leaders and supervisors from the disruptive thoughts and emotions that come their way each day and can hinder the critical values they hold dear.
Following is an overview of how each piece of PPE-A will aid you in your day-to-day practice of better understanding your thoughts and emotions. As you grow and more effectively use your armor, seek ways to teach these PPE-A skills to your crews, subcontractors and other colleagues.
Helmet: The helmet is intended to protect you from negative and disruptive thoughts or internal chatter. You will always have negative thoughts and so will everyone around you, but by using your helmet, you can remind yourself to regulate your negative chatter and protect yourself from the negative chatter of others.
Breastplate: The breastplate protects you from negative and disruptive feelings. Much like chatter, you and everyone else will have negative emotions. Use the breastplate to remind yourself to regulate your emotions while protecting yourself from the toxic emotions coming from others.
Sword: Words are your sword. Talk to yourself in a positive manner, and keep working to find words that empower you and create optimism in your life. Learn to become a better safety professional and leader by influencing yourself and others with the right words. Even when dealing with a person’s poor performance, the right words can positively influence and motivate changes in behavior. Becoming a wordsmith will improve your sword skills, which are especially important in high-pressure situations.
Shield: You need to protect yourself from being influenced by others and their disruptive thoughts and emotions. Use your shield to deflect negativity and stand strong about your core personal values as well as your employer’s values.
Belt: Wrap yourself in the belt of truth and hold yourself and others accountable. Commit to always seeking and telling the truth. If people are running from it, be the one to bring the truth back into focus. If you are wrong, accept and learn from it. Humble yourself and use yourself as an example to others. By committing to the truth and holding yourself accountable, you will put yourself in a position to have great influence among others. At first they may be upset with you for holding them accountable to the truth, but over time they will likely grow to respect you.
Shoes: Put on your shoes and train yourself to be prepared for anything. The best way to do this in the safety world is by developing people’s mental and emotional skills. When improved, these skills lead to improved decision-making in a fast-paced and dramatically changing world.
Think of how much time, effort and money a company has at stake throughout the course of a project. The company puts its faith in employees – faith that they have the right thoughts and emotions prior to performing tasks with known hazards. The risks faced by the employees may be great, so proper training about thoughts and emotions is essential. This means that we must practice and teach others how to put on their PPE-A every day – we must regularly have safety conversations based on hazardous thoughts and emotions.
For any skilled craft worker who knows their trade, has been trained in compliance, and knows the company procedures inside and out, their last line of defense truly is the ability to be both aware of their thoughts and emotions and knowledgeable about how to properly regulate them. This is now a guiding principle for all safety professionals and supervisors within every industry. You must first take ownership of these ideas, and then demonstrate them often while on the job to teach them to your crews, subcontractors and others who work by your side.
About the Author: Parrish Taylor is the author and instructor of Mental & Emotional Training (M.E.T.), a skills development program. He has successfully implemented workforce development strategies within the electric utility sector for numerous clients including Entergy, Cleco and Oklahoma Gas & Electric. To learn more, visit www.parrishtaylor.com. Taylor has also served as an adult learning consultant for the last 20 years. Learn more at www.tmctraining.net.
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